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Minnesota 2020 Journal: State Energy Independence

August 24, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Like a Venn diagram, Minnesota energy independence shares common properties with American energy independence. But at the same time, energy independence in Minnesota means something pointedly different than it does nationally. That difference should guide Minnesota’s energy policy direction.

Minnesota has no oil or natural gas wells. We don’t mine coal. While we have three nuclear energy generation units, the nuclear fuel necessary to operate them come from beyond Minnesota’s borders. Consequently, while American energy independence means importing less fossil fuel from abroad and relying on American-sourced oil, coal and gas, energy independent Minnesotans have only three locally produced energy sources: wind, sun, and biofuels.

If we’re serious about changing the way that we live, realizing greater energy independence and enjoying the economic benefits that come with it, Minnesota must focus on upgrading state energy policy.

What do sun, wind, and biofuels have in common? They’re sustainable energy sources. Every day, the sun shines, the wind blows, and corn grows, replenishing yesterday’s power generation. As researchers and applied scientists continue turning algae, cellulosic materials, and wood pulp materials into fuel sources, corn will bear less of biofuels’ demand load. The important point is that fossil fuels are an unsustainable energy source. They can’t be replenished. Solar and wind don’t require millions of years and the unrelenting pressure of the earth’s crust to convert plant materials into energy transfer mediums like crude oil, coal or natural gas. Fossil fuel energy generation strategies have a shelf-life. They’re not going to last forever.

Minnesota generates electricity by burning western states and Canadian coal and natural gas. Nuclear generated power is also a significant source of the electrical base-load. Reducing dependence on these sources means increasing reliance on wind and sun. Wind and solar energy generation technology has come a long way within a single generation but it needs to go much, much further.

Xcel Energy’s recent decision to terminate its pilot solar panel purchasing incentive program highlights the challenges of shifting to a sustainable, energy independent power generation model. It’s tempting to point fingers, finding fault in Xcel Energy’s decision but I prefer to see the bigger picture.

A pilot program by its nature explores potential. It’s not supposed to solve wide-scale problems but to test concepts and ideas that lead to new policy directions. In Minnesota, Xcel operates under a state mandate to produce 30% of its power from renewable sources by 2020. A quarter of that must come from wind generation. As a part of this plan, Xcel offered a rate payer-funded solar rewards program that subsidized solar photovoltaic panel purchases and installation.

It’s not cheap. 560 homes have participated at an average rebate of $12,000 per residence for a total $15 million project cost. With solar panel prices falling, Xcel moved to end the program, proposing a phase-out period ending in 2013.

Again, let’s not point fingers, trading barbs and accusations. Minnesota’s greater energy goal is to move toward genuine sustainability. We’re not going to get there solely through solar panel subsidies, a few hundred houses at a time. We need to think systemically, meaning that we need to consider large-scale integration of renewable sources.

Individual consumers are going to play a much greater role in achieving energy independence. Solar panels are a step toward reducing demand through home energy generation. But, it’s unrealistic to expect that every home can achieve energy consumption neutrality. In fact, there’s a slippery conservative slope argument that Minnesota must avoid. Sustainability and energy independence can’t be relegated to individual initiative. My energy independence can’t come at your expense. Instead, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s why energy independence and sustainability is an important state-wide goal. We’re only going to get there by pulling together. When Minnesotans work together, focusing on what really matters, we move Minnesota forward towards prosperity. Energy sustainability and independence create opportunities. We need more of those, not fewer.

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  • Tim Bonham says:

    August 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    “Every day, the sun shines, ... and corn grows”

    Uuh, John—it may be tough, in August, but you do remember winter in Minnesota?

    It seems like weeks that the sun doesn’t shine (or at least sunshine doesn’t make it through the clouds to us).  And there’s about 6 months that corn does not grow.

    Renewable energy is a good idea; good enough that we don’t need exaggeration to sell it.